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Paw Paw and a different Cumberland Gap

I’d never heard of Cumberland, Maryland.  Like many, at first I confused it with the famous Cumberland Gap to the south, where in 1775, Daniel Boone helped build a road for settlers to what was considered the western frontier of Kentucky and Tennessee.  In 2013, this Cumberland is poised as a potential great vacation spot.

Cumberland is a city of spires

Cumberland is a city of spires

It’s situated amid historic buildings, with good restaurants, and lovely scenery.

Washington's Headquarters from French and Indian War era

Washington’s Headquarters from French and Indian War era

When my family decided to meet in Cumberland for a mini family reunion, a few spots kept coming up in our research, including Rocky Gap State Park, George Washington’s headquarters (a tiny cabin from his early days), the Western Maryland Railroad, the Allegany Museum, and the C&O Canal, including the Paw Paw Tunnel.   We target the latter as a spot for a family hike.

Jackie Chan at the mouth of the tunnel

Jackie Chan at the mouth of the tunnel

The Paw Paw Tunnel is a part of the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal system, which runs 184.5 miles to Washington D.C.   Paw Paw is a 3118 foot long tunnel blasted through the mountain.  Construction on it began in 1836, and it was one of the great engineering feats of its day.   Since it is essentially flat, the trail is popular with cyclists as well as hikers.  Don’t expect solitude, but expect some unique sights.The route toward the Paw Paw Tunnel Trail heads south out of Cumberland along the Potomac River, then heads east.   The winding drive along Route 51 is pleasant, but the destination was easy to miss, as signage was not great.  A Boy Scout troop was camped in a field beside the trailhead, but there were few people on the trail initially.

Nearing the tunnel on a gorgeous day

Nearing the tunnel on a gorgeous day

It was muggy at the trailhead and there were some concerns about how far the hike would be for my mother, who is a few years past her mountaineering prime.  A sign at the top of the initial hill indicated the tunnel was 0.6miles away.   Research told me that the tunnel itself would double the distance.   Piece of cake.   If it were closer to Washington, like the area of my previous two posts, it would be a perfect candidate for Hiking Along, a site that helps kids.  They focus on hikes and outdoor education in the D.C. area.

The near end of the tunnel

The near end of the tunnel: note the trail splitting off to the right.

A couple caveats:  Beware of puddles and slightly bumpy terrain in a very dark environment.  Some people managed without, but a flashlight is highly recommended.

Picture yourself on a barge to the left of the railing

Picture yourself on a barge in the canal to the left of the railing

One nice middle aged couple we met did not have a light, and they were about to turn around a few hundred feet in when they encountered puddles.  We loaned them a light so they continued.   On entering the tunnel, it is hard to believe that the light at the other end of the straight tunnel is 3000 feet way.  Ten minutes into the dark traverse, you’ll start believing.

Jackie Chan and his mama

Jackie Chan and his mama

We’d heard there were bats in the tunnel, but encountered none.   I was slightly disappointed, but I think everyone else was happy.

The far end of the tunnel

The far end of the tunnel

Cool turtle just past the far end of the tunnel

Cool turtle just past the far end of the tunnel

At the far end, there are rocky slabs that create a small canyon that would not be out of place in the foothills of the Rockies. We relaxed there for fifteen minutes or so, taking photos before returning, passing much more traffic on the way back.

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This would be awesome on a bike!

My mom loved this hike, I got to appreciate some history while walking, and I even saw youngsters enjoying it on foot as well as on two wheels.  This is a great family hike, and the path has many more miles to recommend it, even starting in downtown Cumberland.    We might have to return!

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Denise, Jackie Chan, and I ready for the return hike– and  lunch at the Crabby Pig.  🙂

Sugarloaf Mountain: another Maryland winner

At the bottom of the hill

At the bottom of the hill

Sugarloaf is a small mondadnock, or standalone peak amidst land that has eroded around it. It is not as dramatic as the eponymous Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, reportedly one of the most climbed peaks in the world.  This peak has a different feel, due partly to some Civil War history in the area and partly due to a road that comes within a quarter mile of the summit at the lookout areas. While my wife was teaching a seminar an hour away, I took a morning to try some more Maryland hiking. I wasn’t disappointed.

The east lookout area

The east lookout area

Getting close to the top is not an issue, but the paths are still steep enough that they are not suited for somebody with bad knees or cheap flip flops.

A thorough trail system drapes over the upper half of the mountain.   From the East Lookout area, with a nice lookout and picnic area, two trails duck into the woods.   The Orange, or sunrise trail, heads towards the summit.  A connector trail goes downhill towards the white trail, which is curving around the mountain’s eastern flank at this point.   There are no views, but the woods are still lovely.

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The white trail eventually connects with the blue trail,  which does more climbing.  From a broad notch near a nice rocky lookout, the red trail heads to the summit from the north .

Fellow climber

Fellow climber

Since I was visiting the nation’s capital, the combination of white, blue and red trails struck a nice chord.  At times, the final climb seemed steep, but it was short enough that the sweat I broke mostly came from heat and humidity rather than exertion.

The seep beginning of the red trail

The steep beginning of the red trail

The summit area is wide, and there are a few great views, mostly to the south.   A slow but steady stream of hikers passed over the top.   I didn’t stay long.

Jackie Chan the wonderdog on top

Jackie Chan the wonderdog on top.  Notice webbing for climbing anchors in background

View from the top

View from the top

On the way down, I noticed some rock climbers along a few cliff bands.

Rock climbing in the background

Rock climbing routes in the background

I descended the rock steps on the steepest trail, ending up near the western lookout.

Long set of stairs.

Now that’s a set of stairs!

Four tenths of a mile on pavement connect the two lookouts, making a nice loop a little under two miles.

The bottom of the descent trail

The bottom of the descent trail;  I guess the trail builders had some leftover rock.

The hiking at Sugarloaf Mountain is good, and the drive through the bucolic countryside is a bonus.   Clearly, Maryland has some great hiking.   Stay tuned for a write up on my next stop at the famed Paw Paw Tunnel with my wife and family.

Patuxent Research Refuge Ramble

While visiting the East Coast, I found time to get out and stretch my legs.   This spot in Laurel, Maryland, just miles from the D.C. Beltway, is a great spot for a mellow hike with big rewards.  Go early to void the humidity, and beware of ticks.  Jackie Chan the wonderdog found out about them the hard way, despite being on leash the entire time.IMG_6531

Interestingly, the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, established in 1936 by President or Roosevelt, is the only “National Wildlife Refuge established to support wildlife research.”  For some reason, the U.S. Geological Survey does most of the research now.  Whatever works.

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I’d heard there were hiking trails, but I didn’t know where to start.  My internal compass had me follow a sign to the South Tract and the parking lot for the visitor’s center.  I wasn’t sure if Jackie would be allowed, so my expectations were low as I drove through the gate.  I also was prepared to pay an entrance fee, but it was free.  Hard to grumble about taxes at times like that.

Cool bark

Cool bark

The visitor center had ample parking. The day was quite sunny and already close to 80 degrees, so I found a semi-shady spot.   As I got Jackie out of the car, I noticed a trail starting not fifty feet away, right on the edge of the entrance drive.  It had brochures and maps (with scannable bar code option) at a small kiosk .  The Fire Road Trail led through a flat forest of deciduous trees and little undergrowth, although there were some berry bushes by the trail.

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I had flashbacks to hiking in the Adirondacks, but this was too flat to truly compare.  The trail wanders between the entrance road and the exit road, crossing the latter after half a mile. It then goes into the woods and crosses an old powerline road, soon reaching a junction at the Valley Trail and the Laurel Trail.  Jackie loved all of this section,. sniffing away and checking out the sounds of the forest.

Jackie searching the source of bird noise or squirrel chirp

Jackie Chan searching the source of bird noise or squirrel chirp

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I appreciate the excellent signage

It’s possible to follow the Laurel Trail to Goose Pond and beyond it, the visitors center.   A longer route along the Valley Trail heads to the end of nearby Cash Lake, where at least one heron was hanging out on a piling, and red winged blackbirds sang in the marsh grasses.  The sun was high and sweat was rolling.

Bridge by end of Cash Lake

Bridge by end of Cash Lake

A few fishermen were at the foot of Cash Lake, where there is a fishing pier and access to the shore on the far side.  The far end of the pier is accessible by car or truck.  The trail continues on the far side of the lake, but it has seasonal closures for bird nesting, and it was closed when I was there.

Cash Lake

Cash Lake

The return leg along the northern part of the lake also closes a nice loop, eventually meeting the Goose Pond trail and emerging right near the visitor center, across the parking lot from our start.

The fishing pier

The fishing pier

A large group of Canada Geese were slowly swimming through some Monet-invoking water lilies.   At first they’d seemed to be in stealth mode.  I counted at least 70 geese.

Monet, anyone?

Monet, anyone?

Spy geese...

A few of the spy geese…

There were a couple nice spots to observe birds, the water, as well as the flora in the area.

Along the edge of Cash Lake on the way back.

Along the edge of Cash Lake on the way back

All told, I hiked around three miles, and it was well worth the time.  I had to spend some time pulling ticks off Jackie and research Lyme Disease (almost unheard of in the Northwest), but I would still highly recommend the Patuxent Research Refuge for a casual hike.  With more time and fewer ticks, the visitor center would surely have been a great complement to the hike.